Opera in four act. Running Time: 2 hours 39 minutes (opera 2 hours 29 minutes).
(Set design for Act 1 Scene 2, Wikimedia)
This was the second of the three Italian ‘reform” operas of the 1860s, Boito’s Mefistofele would be the third, in which two Italian musicians, conductor Faccio and librettist Boito, attempted to create an alternative to Verdian Italian opera in the face of the challenge of Wagner. It was the “Make Italian Opera Great Again” of the 19th century, when faced with the pressure of French International Opera and W-man, Italians claimed they could still hold their own on the world stage. Of course, reality set in and after Alfredo Catalani, Verdi’s Otello, and CavPag, Puccini would end up becoming the dominate voice in Italian opera. But that was 18 years away, so we end up coming to this relic (or skeleton) in the closet of Italian opera.
It has a very spotty performance history. After the 1865 production, it was revised at La Scala in 1871 and then vanished until it was revived in Santa Fe of all places in 2014. Since then it gets one or two productions a year, mostly in the United States. The exception to this is the act four funeral march which has been performed regularly every Greek Orthodox Holy Saturday in the city of Corfu (although why specifically I do not know, it just is).
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (43.5 minutes)
Scene 1: Great Hall of Elsinore Castle.
5, 9: The prelude consists of mildly brooding strings (it returns in the final scene of the opera) and a crescendo that desperately seeks to overtake itself, over and over. The curtain rises on a party and the first item of note is the sparkling Ballabile ** which sounds almost like carnival music and is a rather remarkably modern sounding piece akin to Puccini’s work in La Boheme. The orchestration is also very rich, including triangle and glockenspiel. Much of this festivity is as much a celebration of the coronation of King Claudius and his marriage to Queen Gertrude as an attempt to get Prince Hamlet out of his apparent bout of brooding depression. It doesn’t seem to work so sexy Ofelia sings a song about how love is the eternal power **.
14: A Brindisi *, first started by King Claudius, then Gertrude takes up a verse. It has one repeated theme that is striking but it is otherwise rather low temperature. It does get a bit more interesting as Hamlet rages and Ofelia tries to pacify him.
23: Marcello and Orazio (guards who are friends of Hamlet) come on but it is mostly ornery until a brief passage from Laertes * lightens the mood slightly.
25, 26: Another dance tune * leading to Hamlet deciding to follow the guards to a “Ghost” which is possibly the dead King. This leads to what is termed an “orgy” ** which provides the scene with a fine conclusion.
Scene 2: The castle parapet.
28, 33: The next scene is preceded by a prelude * utilizing the strings. Hamlet implores the ghost of his father to reveal himself to him *.
34, 40: The Ghost makes his appearance ** and fills Hamlet in the details that I don’t need to get into. There is a single moment of high strings which is nice * right before the apparition disappears and Hamlet swears vengeance and the act ends with a brief Gregorian chant-like trio which fades out.
ACT 2 (34.5 minutes)
Scene 1: A hall in the castle.
2: In a rather amusing dialogue, Polonius claims to the King and Queen that Hamlet is so depressed out of love for his daughter Ofelia. They hide and this prompts the Suicide Monologue ***, also known as “To be, or not to be” only it’s “Essere o non essere”.
8: The arrival of Ofelia seems to do nothing to help the situation, although their duet, which is mostly a series of monologues does have a nice harp accompaniment **. He tells her to go to a nunnery while she attempts to seduce him. Polonius come in when this experiment proves futile and tells Hamlet about the visiting players who have just arrived at the castle. Hamlet decides to hire them out for a play about regicide which will prove if what the Ghost said about Claudius is true.
Scene 2: Another hall, made up for the presentation of a play.
21, 25: The scene opens with a “Gran Marcia Danese”. Mildly military, not really all that grand although the brass try to do their stuff. By the end you will be thrilled that it is over, no star. The Play * is acted to a mildly ornery string accompaniment framed by sexy passes between Hamlet and Ophelia meant to keep everyone else off the scent. The actor playing the king gets one lyrical passage which is nice *.
28: The finale ** starts as Claudius gets antsy and Gertrude tries to play down the situation. A jovial ensemble develops for some reason. Claudius eventually runs from the room and Hamlet feels vindicated as he laughs to a satisfactory combination of circus music and battery chords.
ACT 3: (Begins at 1:23:12) (43 minutes)
Scene 1: Claudius’ chambres.
5: Claudius expresses a lot of remorse for murdering his brother, marrying his wife, and stealing the throne from Hamlet (which is even more violations of Mosaic Law than I care to count). Hamlet arrives and is about to kill Claudius but remembers that apparently killing people at prayer sends them to heaven immediately (how exactly?). Claudius’ prayer * has a noble sounding accompaniment which it probably doesn’t deserve. It gets very agitated, although never too much.
12: Polonius tries to help Gertrude quell Hamlet’s violence and insanity but when he arrives, Polonius hides behind a curtain. Gertrude is attacked by Hamlet and Polonius’ cries for help lead to Hamlet stabbing him to death. Hamlet rallies against the King’s wickedness just as he has murdered Polonius *.
14, 16: The Ghost of Old Hamlet appears to Hamlet and orders that Hamlet not extent his revenge to Gertrude **. This prompts a powerful trio ** to develop for the three living and dead nuclear family members. It is followed by one of the few moments in the score that consists of fluid instrumental music, only for it to disappear into a series of battery chords.
22: Gertrude’s guilty aria ** is ironically one of the best arias in the piece.
Scene 2: A remote park in Elsinore.
28: The best of the preludes *** (attempting to mimic that of Lohengrin), is followed by a furious and effective chorus of anti-Claudius supporters calling for his death. Laertes comes home and learns that his father has been murdered by Prince Hamlet and his sister Ophelia has gone insane, so of course he wants to murder Hamlet now!
32: Ophelia’s mad scene ***. Round one, Laertes observes her from a distance in horror. Ophelia goes into round two and drowns. With the prelude and furious choral opening, this is the best scene in the opera overall.
ACT 4 (31.5 minutes)
Scene 1: The Graveyard.
0: A strong opening scene **: the gravediggers do their stuff very effectively. Hamlet and Orazio come on and chat with the diggers but hide when Ophelia’s cortege arrives
7: Marcia Funebre ***, the one piece in the opera that might be recognizable outside of the opera house as it is used by the inhabitants of Corfu during their Holy Saturday processions. Most of it is placid except for a series of brief trumpet voluntaries which are supported by the the strings and timpani. Eventually the cymbals get in on the action as well.
13, 17: Gertrude is the first to mourn Ophelia **, even Claudius. Hamlet tries to declare that he loved Ophelia. This doesn’t go well, the brass goes mad briefly and the scene ends with a climactic company ensemble **.
Scene 2: A hall in the castle.
19, 30: The finale scene **. Another good prelude (with trumpet voluntaires) and choral sequence (SATB) as it is announced that Hamlet and Laertes will fence for sport (Laertes admitting to Claudius that his sword is tipped with poison, they both end up poisoned as a result of blade switching). A lot happens very quickly: the last four remaining main characters all either get stabbed to death or poisoned in some way, Gertrude taking a long time to die. The theme from the very beginning of the opera returns ** as Hamlet dies after stabbing Claudius to death. Curtain.
Amleto is a promising work, very experimental but equally amateurish. These are qualities it shares with Boito’s Mefistofele (where one constantly feels that Boito either is clunky or just got lucky), not really a surprise given that Boito wrote the libretto to both of these operas. Faccio’s usage of “exotic” orchestral features (timpani, brass, glockenspiel, triangle) is a definite plus, but the way he handles both the standard instruments (particularly the strings but also the woodwinds) and the vocals (especially the tenor voices) can be rather crude, especially in the first two acts. The musical quality does improve as the opera progresses, however. The libretto is not Boito’s finest, it is episodic and a lot of narrative occurs behind the scenes, leaving a lot of what actually occurs on stage to feel rushed. Rather it feels more like “highlights of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set to second-rate Italian operatic music”. However, Faccio does pull off three scenes extremely well: Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”, Ophelia’s Mad Scene, and the Funerary Cortege sequence in Act 4, and three or four other numbers such as the Ballabile and the Ghost’s aria in act 1 and Gertrude’s aria in act 3 all come off very well. The result is something between Wagnerian music drama and Cagnoni’s Re Lear, although it is never as good as the former nor ever as bad as the latter in all honesty. A beta, maybe plus.